Texas Lawmakers Vote To Raise Speed Limit

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Texas already has the highest speed limit in the nation: 80 mph. And now, the state House of Representatives has voted to increase the limit to 85 mph.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

If you can't stomach driving 55 or 65 or even 75, the state of Texas is your kind of place. It already has the highest speed limit in the nation, 80 miles per hour. Well, now the State House of Representatives has voted to increase that to 85.

Here's NPR's Wade Goodwyn.

WADE GOODWYN: If you've never driven Interstate 10 between San Antonio and El Paso, it's hard to imagine just how desolate west Texas is.

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GOODWYN: A beautiful, flat, straight four-lane, so empty that you notice every time a car comes the other way you begin to wave at them. Driving 80 or 90 miles an hour in this country brings a certain satisfaction. While you've still got hundreds of miles to go, at least you're making some time while you rock on.

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GOODWYN: When you periodically have to slow down as you pass through some tiny west Texas burg, it seems excruciating. Who put this town here anyway? Driving fast in west Texas is a kind of compensation, part of being Texan, of being free. Who could be against this?

JERRY JONES: Well, history has taught us that when you raise the speed limit, you typically have more accidents, more fatalities, more injuries on the road.

GOODWYN: Jerry Johns is the president of Southwest Insurance Information Service, which serves the insurance industry in Texas and Oklahoma. Johns says 80 miles an hour is already too fast, and 85 is foolhardy. He says it's too much for new teenage drivers and too much for drivers in their 70s, 80s and 90s.

JONES: It takes substantially longer to stop a vehicle going 85 than it does a vehicle going 70.

GOODWYN: And that's the insurance industry's argument against the new speed limit in a nutshell. If you go to the horse's mouth and ask, say, the sheriff of Pecos County about his experiences, Sheriff Cliff Harris has two points he'd like to make. The first concerns Texas drivers.

CLIFF HARRIS: When the speed limit was 70, people would drive 75 or 80. And the speed limit's now 80 miles an hour on our interstate, and people, they're still driving 85 and 90.

GOODWYN: Harris says raise it to 85, and he believes Texans will drive 90 and 95. The sheriff says it's not that there's a noticeable increase in accidents, but when they do happen, they're worse.

HARRIS: When you're running 85 and 90 miles an hour, and you have a blow out, or you go off the road and overcorrect and come back and start rolling...

GOODWYN: You can leave pieces of your car and yourself strewn a quarter-mile down the road. While we're on the subject of tires, at high speeds they get hot. And if it's July in west Texas and 103 degrees outside, and the black top is 115 degrees, the tires can be significantly stressed.

Bridgestone, the largest maker of tires in the world, says your tires are built to withstand at least 112 mph. But at extremely high speeds, the tires have to be well-maintained and properly filled. If not, all bets are off.

Kurt Berger is an engineer at Bridgestone.

KURT BERGER: The best way to prevent excessive heat generation is to make sure that you maintain the proper inflation pressure in your tires.

GOODWYN: The 85 mile per hour bill has passed the Texas house and now goes to the Senate. The Senate is grappling with a 20-plus billion dollar budget shortfall. But if the Lone Star state is going broke, at least we can still point our fabulous thunderbirds west and drop the hammer.

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FABULOUS THUNDERBIRDS: Ain't that tough enough? Ain't that tough enough?

GOODWYN: Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.

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